Walter Munk

Interview: Eliana Alvarez & Leah Goudsmit

Eliana Alvarez & Leah Goudsmit: What does the ocean mean to you?

Walter Munk: Everything. It’s my job, it’s my nourishment, my mistress, my past, present, and future at the same time. It’s everything in my life.

EA/LG: How do you think people can protect the ocean?

WM: They should treat the oceans like we do anything else that we care about—with consideration, with care, and affection. That’s it. For that we must educate. People have to realize that the air we breathe and the water we drink come from the ocean and will go back to the ocean one way or another, no matter how far away we may be from it. It’s a perpetual cycle. The amount of water on the planet does not change, only its quality. Fresh water is like a fossil fuel; we should not waste it.

EA/LG: What questions should be asked to protect the environment?

WM: What do we expect the climate to do? How will it affect people? And how can we protect people from hardship? We should be willing to face the facts that things may not go very well. We may have to adjust our lifestyle, and we must be prepared to accept that. Are we really willing to leave our planet to our children and future generations in a worse state than when it was entrusted to us?

EA/LG: Are you involved in any climate science projects?

WM: I am involved in making measurements in polar oceans, and they are changing more than anything else. I think we have to be prepared for major changes associated with the melting of floating ice and the melting of the Greenland glacier.

Walter Munk

EA/LG: In your life, what have you learned that you would like to share with young students and scientists?

WM: It’s important that you work on things that you care about and do a good job and not be too worried about consequences. Don’t be afraid to get involved. I have hopes that the students at Scripps will do daring research and experiments. More and more students are playing it safe and not taking any risks. You might not succeed, but that’s just part of the game.

EA/LG: You and other scientists met with the Pope on a five-day [Pontifical Academy] summit titled “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility,” which led to the Pope’s stand on climate change. What was discussed?

WM: We spoke on how to protect humanity by conserving the natural reserves that we need to survive. We have to have more consideration for people who have lesser means than we do. It is a problem of survival. There is no question that a very large number of people have to move; you cannot live where the water comes over you. I have not heard one suggestion on how we are going to move one hundred million people out of low-lying areas and what countries would be willing to accept them. We walked away with a feeling of what is really required if we want to survive into the next generation. It will require more consideration, thoughtfulness, and unselfishness than people have generally shown in the past. It was a moving experience.

EA/LG: You are invited to attend the eightieth birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to talk about the effects of climate change and taking action to resolve this global issue.

WM: I am so delighted that His Holiness the Dalai Lama decided to join the announcement of the Pope. I am looking forward to listening. We have to work together to do a better job than we did in the last few generations.

EA/LG: What would you like to tell the world?

WM: I would like to ask them to realize that this is going to be a difficult few hundred years. No matter what we do, we have to give up some of the advantages of the wealthy Western nations and help out people who are less fortunate. That is the key. I think we can do it if we have more compassion for one another. We’ve gotten awfully selfish. I am prepared to do it.

“It’s important that you work on things that you care about and do a good job and not be too worried about consequences. Don’t be afraid to
get involved.”

EA/LG: Do we still have hope for the planet?

WM: Yes, we still have hope; it is what keeps us going. We shouldn’t think it’s easy, but we must have the hope to be able to succeed. There is still hope and time to act, but they both are fast running out.

Professor Walter H. Munk has been with Scripps Institution of Oceanography since 1939. In the documentary Spirit of Discovery, he shares his wisdom with a new generation of scientists.

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